In 1988, one year before Cops began asking the bad boys of America “What'cha gonna do when they come for you?,” noted victims’ advocate John Walsh was turning every American with access to Fox into a potential crime-solver on America’s Most Wanted.
The series, which highlighted real-life cases of fugitives and suspected criminals who had managed to evade capture (or recapture), became the first hit show for the then-fledgling Fox network and turned into a cultural phenomenon. To celebrate its 30th anniversary, here are 20 things you might not have known about America’s Most Wanted.
1. IT WAS INSPIRED BY A LONG-RUNNING BBC TRUE CRIME SERIES.
America’s Most Wanted partly owes its existence to an assistant to Fox owner Rupert Murdoch, who suggested the idea of a true crime series along the lines of BBC’s Crimewatch, which featured reenactments of brutal crimes and hosts who implored the public to assist them with catching the criminals. The show began airing once a month on BBC One in 1984, and was cancelled in 2017.
2. JOHN WALSH WASN’T THE FIRST CHOICE TO HOST IT.
Though it’s hard to imagine America’s Most Wanted without its longtime host John Walsh—a hotel executive who became a noted victims' advocate following the abduction and murder of his young son, Adam, in 1981—the show’s producers considered a lot of other names before landing on Walsh.
“Stephen Chao—Fox’s vice president of program development—and an L.A. producer named Michael Linder sat down with [Fox’s vice president of corporate and legal affairs] Tom Herwitz to discuss the possibilities,” Walsh wrote in his autobiography, Tears of Rage, about the network’s search for a host. “They considered the author Joseph Wambaugh, and a whole raft of actors—Treat Williams, Ed Marinaro, Brian Dennehy, Brian Keith, and Theresa Saldana, who had played herself in a TV movie about how she was nearly stabbed to death by some psychotic attacker. Then, during one of their marathon conference calls, Herwitz suggested me.”
It took a while for them to track Walsh down—“I was all over the place in those days, traveling something like half a million air miles a year,” he wrote—but after a handful of conversations, he agreed to shoot the pilot.
3. IT WAS FOX’S FIRST HIT SERIES.
Fox was still a new network—less than two years old—when America’s Most Wanted debuted, and it quickly became the network’s first big hit. Though it originally only aired in a handful of markets, by April the network was broadcasting America’s Most Wanted nationwide. In 1989, it became the first Fox series to be the most-watched program in its time slot. By 2010, each episode was being watched by about 5 million households.
4. THE ANNOUNCER’S VOICE WAS A VERY FAMILIAR ONE.
From 1996 until his death in 2008, legendary voice actor Don LaFontaine served as the show’s narrator. You probably know LaFontaine as the voice behind more than 5000 movie trailers, and the person most often associated with the “In a world…” trope. He was often referred to as “Thunder Throat” and “The Voice of God.” Wes Johnson took over the role following LaFontaine’s passing.
5. THOUGH INITIALLY SKEPTICAL, LAW ENFORCEMENT PROFESSIONALS QUICKLY EMBRACED THE SHOW.
In a 1988 interview with The New York Times, executive producer Michael Linder admitted that law enforcement professionals were initially skeptical of the show, though it didn’t take them long to embrace its purpose—and possibilities. “Now, they bombard us with tips and requests for help,” Linder said.
The FBI also played a big part in the series; the agency assigned a handful of agents to act as liaisons between William S. Sessions, the bureau’s then-director, and the show’s producers. On May 29, 1998, Sessions even appeared on an episode of the show to give a rundown of the latest additions to the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list (one of whom was captured shortly thereafter, thanks to a viewer tip).
Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau told The New York Times that he, too, was a fan of the series, saying that, “If the media, through publicity, can contribute to the apprehension of dangerous criminals, I'm all for it. Besides, it’s very expensive to track down criminals. A couple of detectives or FBI agents can spend months or years searching for someone. It seems to me that this is a wonderful way to save the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
6. THE AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION WAS NOT ON BOARD WITH THE CONCEPT.
Though many of the individuals featured on the show were fugitives, the American Civil Liberties Union had concerns that a suspect who appeared on the show would not be able to get a fair trial. “I suppose it’s like an electronic wanted poster,” Colleen O'Connor, the ACLU’s director of public education, told The New York Times in 1988. “The poster on the wall in the post office makes it seem like the fugitive is guilty, too … Can someone get a fair trial after he's been portrayed as a killer on television?”
But Linder contested this point, telling the Times that civil liberties were always at the forefront of the producers’ mind. “If one killer was set free because of pretrial publicity from us, the show would be a failure,” he said. The show also made a very clear point of using language like “alleged” and “reportedly” when discussing suspects who had not been convicted—and Walsh ended each episode with a reminder that the suspects featured in the show were innocent until proven guilty.
7. WITHIN FOUR DAYS OF THE SHOW’S PREMIERE, THEY HAD CAUGHT THEIR FIRST SUSPECT.
On February 7, 1988, America’s Most Wanted debuted on just a handful of Fox stations across the country. On February 11, four days later, a viewer tip led to the arrest of David James Roberts, a convicted murderer and rapist who had made a brazen escape from prison in 1986 while being transported to a hospital.
After the episode aired, the show’s tip line received dozens of calls from people who knew Roberts as Bob Lord, an employee at a homeless shelter in Staten Island. Roberts, who was on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list, was the first fugitive profiled on the show, and the first person caught as a result of viewer tips.
8. THE SHOW HELPED THE FBI CATCH 17 OF THEIR “MOST WANTED” FUGITIVES.
America’s Most Wanted proved to be a huge help to the FBI during the quarter-century it was on the air. According to the FBI’s website, 17 “‘Ten Most Wanted Fugitives’ have been located as a direct result of tips provided by viewers of this program” (beginning with Roberts in that very first episode).
9. WALSH MAINTAINED HIS OWN “MOST WANTED” LIST.
Like the FBI, Walsh maintained his own “most wanted” list, which was known as the America’s Most Wanted “Dirty Dozen.” It changed regularly, but included fugitives who had been featured on the show and had yet to be captured.
10. THE HOTLINE NUMBER CHANGED SEVERAL TIMES.
In order to expedite the crime-solving process, the last two digits of the show’s hotline changed each year for the first few years in order to match the year the episode aired (1-800-CRIME-88, 1-800-CRIME-89, etc.). On average, the show received approximately 3000 to 5000 calls per week. In 1994, the number changed one last time—to 1-800-CRIME-TV. The number was shut down in June 2014. (As for the operators you saw during each episode: most of them were actors.)
Amazingly, crank calls weren’t a big problem for the show, according to Linder, though they did receive a lot of hang-up calls. (He suspected people just wanted to try dialing the number to see if someone would answer.)
11. LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICERS INVOLVED WITH THE CASES FEATURED WERE ON HAND IN THE CALL CENTER.
So that any promising tips could be quickly vetted and followed up on once an episode aired, The New York Times reported that, “In the television studio, there are some 30 telephone operators to take the calls. Also on hand are police officers or federal agents directly involved in cases being aired that night. When one of the operators gets a good lead, an officer picks up the phone and asks the caller further questions.”
12. A GROUP OF PRISONERS ONCE TURNED IN A FELLOW INMATE.
On May 15, 1988, Mark Goodman was in the final stretch of a brief prison stint following a burglary conviction in Palm Beach County, Florida, but was wanted elsewhere in the country for escaping federal custody following an armed robbery conviction. He was watching the show with a group of his fellow inmates when his face flashed across the screen. Though The New York Times reported that he tried to change the channel, it was too late: Goodman's fellow inmates informed the prison guards that there was an America’s Most Wanted fugitive in their midst. While being transferred to a more secure facility, Goodman managed to escape custody again. Fortunately, he was apprehended the next day.
13. FOX CANCELLED THE SERIES IN 1996. VIEWERS—AND THE AUTHORITIES—WEREN’T HAPPY.
In 1996, the powers-that-be at Fox—which now had a handful of hit series, including The Simpsons—decided to cancel America’s Most Wanted and push Married… With Children (which was in its final season) into the first half of its 9 p.m. time slot. The public let their outrage be known.
“We went off for four weeks,” Walsh told Larry King in 2003. “Everybody in law enforcement contacted Fox. Fifty-five members of Congress contacted Fox. Thirty-seven governors. I don't think 37 governors could agree on how many stars and stripes are on the flag, but they all went after [the network]—and they said it [was] a business decision. But … 200,000 good American citizens wrote Fox and said, ‘This is wrong.’ We were the shortest canceled show in the history of television.”
14. THE SHOW ALMOST HELPED APPREHEND GIANNI VERSACE’S KILLER FOUR DAYS BEFORE HIS MURDER.
Fans of FX’s The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story probably noticed a recent shout-out to America’s Most Wanted. In the episode, an employee at a sandwich shop in Miami recognizes Andrew Cunanan when he comes in to buy a sub and calls the police to report it. But Cunanan managed to make his way out of the eatery just before the police arrived. While the episode left no doubt that it was indeed Cunanan (as portrayed by Darren Criss) who was ordering a tuna fish sandwich, the reality of what happened is not as clear-cut.
After Cunanan made his way onto the FBI’s Most Wanted Fugitives list on June 12, 1997, the bureau asked the show for help. They ran a segment on the alleged serial killer, and Miami police did respond to a call from Kenny Benjamin, an employee of Miami Subs, who swore that Cunanan was in the shop. Police arrived almost immediately, but the man in question had already left. And Benjamin had ended up blocking the security camera’s view of the suspect while making the call, so whether or not it was indeed Cunanan was never confirmed. But we do know that the call was made four days before Versace’s murder.
15. AT THE REQUEST OF THE WHITE HOUSE, THE SHOW TOOK ON TERRORISTS FOLLOWING 9/11.
In October 2001, in the wake of 9/11, America’s Most Wanted aired a one-hour special that profiled the FBI’s 22 most wanted terrorists. The New York Post reported that the episode was put together in just 72 hours at the request of White House aide Scott Sforza.
“These are low-life coward terrorists that we’re going to profile and hopefully we can get some of these s–bags off the streets before they hurt anymore Americans,” Walsh said, adding that: “I’m going to send a big message to Bin Laden: You’re just a coward. Americans know it and we’re gonna hunt you down like the dog you are.”
16. MORE THAN ONE SUSPECT PROFILED ON THE SHOW WAS LATER ACQUITTED.
Not every suspect featured on America’s Most Wanted ended up being captured—or found guilty of their alleged crimes. One example: Suspected murderer Richard Emile Newman. Acting on tips that he was living in an apartment in Brooklyn following an episode of America’s Most Wanted that profiled his case, Newman was arrested in New York in 2004. He was extradited back to Canada in 2006 for trial, but in 2010 he was acquitted of those charges.
17. AT LEAST ONE SUSPECT TURNED HIMSELF IN.
On May 8, 1988, America’s Most Wanted featured the case of Stephen Randall Dye, who was wanted in connection with the shooting of a man in New Jersey in 1986 as well as the murder of a motorcyclist in Ohio in 1981. Nervous that he would be found out, Dye—who was living in California at the time—flagged down a police car in San Diego and gave himself up.
18. BARACK OBAMA MADE A SPECIAL APPEARANCE.
In 2010, to celebrate the show’s 1000th episode, Walsh was granted what he assumed would be a quick meet-and-greet with President Barack Obama to film a segment acknowledging the milestone. But when he arrived at the White House, he was taken to the Blue Room for an actual sit-down with the POTUS where they discussed Obama’s various anti-crime initiatives and the show’s impact. “It wasn’t a grip-and-grin or a photo op,” Walsh told the New York Post.
19. IT WAS THE LONGEST-RUNNING SERIES IN FOX’S HISTORY AT THE TIME IT WENT OFF THE AIR.
In June 2011, Fox television cancelled America’s Most Wanted for a second (and final) time. When the show went off the air, it had run for 25 seasons, making it the network’s then-longest running series. (The Simpsons has since surpassed it.)
But that was not the end of America’s Most Wanted. As Walsh told the San Diego Tribune in the wake of the series’s cancellation, "I'm fighting hard to keep this franchise going. It's a television show that gets ratings and saves lives, and we'll find somewhere to keep going. We're not done.”
Walsh was right: The series got picked up by Lifetime, though its run on the network was fairly short-lived; on March 28, 2013, it was cancelled for good.
20. MORE THAN 1000 FUGITIVES HAVE BEEN CAPTURED BECAUSE OF THE SERIES.
In May 2008, America’s Most Wanted was celebrating the show’s 1000th capture. To celebrate, the network got some of the Fox family to tape celebratory messages (including some awkward congrats from American Idol judges Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson, and Paula Abdul). As of March 30, 2013, the total number of captured persons had risen to 1202.